Shuttlesworth the preacher (imagine that)

So let’s say that you are reading a lengthy story about a famous Baptist preacher from the deep South, from a location in the heart of the Bible Belt.

Then, during the story, you are told that when he was young, this remarkable man’s life centered around (a) an illegal activity that (b) centered on alcohol and (c) eventually led to his arrest.

The next thing you know, this man is in a pulpit and people are following him.

Now, wouldn’t you assume that something rather dramatic and almost certainly deeply spiritual happened in his life between the jail cell and the pulpit? Wouldn’t you want to know something about it, if your goal was to understand this great man’s life and to explain it to readers? I mean, this was not your ordinary vocational shift.

That’s the question that hit me about half-way through the magisterial and otherwise excellent Washington Post obituary for one of the giants of the Civil Rights era, the Rev. Fred L. Shuttlesworth, who was best known for his preaching in Birmingham, Ala.

This is must reading if you are at all interested in the history of the modern South and race relations in our land. This man was a giant, but he has never received much national attention. Why? Well, I guess part of the equation is that he remained in the pulpit for his entire life.

This long slice of his Post obituary will provide a taste of what his life was like:

… Shuttlesworth faced down violence from police and racist mobs soon after he began preaching in Birmingham in 1953. In December 1956, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that segregation of buses in Montgomery, Ala., was illegal, he announced that he would challenge other discriminatory laws in court.

On Christmas Day that year, 15 sticks of dynamite exploded beneath his bedroom window. The floor was blown out from under him, but he received only a bump on the head.

“I believe I was almost at death’s door at least 20 times,” he told the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education in 2001. “But when the first bomb went off, it took all fear from my mind. I knew God was with me like he was with Daniel in the lions’ den. The black people of Birmingham knew that God had saved me to lead the fight.”

In 1957, when Rev. Shuttlesworth tried to enroll his children in a white school, he was beaten unconscious with chains, baseball bats and brass knuckles by a Ku Klux Klan mob. His wife was stabbed in the hip. …

Shuttlesworth’s biographer, Andrew Manis, told the Birmingham News in 1999: “There was not a person in the civil rights movement who put himself in the position of being killed more often than Fred Shuttlesworth.”

Rev. Shuttlesworth was arrested more than 30 times and, Manis said, was involved in “more cases in which he was either a defendant or a plaintiff that reached the Supreme Court than any other person in American history.”

Harassment of Rev. Shuttlesworth knew no limits. The Alabama Supreme Court refused to consider one of his legal appeals because it was submitted on paper of the wrong size. In 1960, nine police officers boarded a bus and arrested his three teenage children for refusing to sit in the back.

This was the man who faced Bull Connor over and over and over and over in standoffs that were primarily covered in local newspapers, not on the national evening news.

So where did this man come from? Here’s the moment in the story that stumped me.

He was born Freddie Lee Robinson in Mount Meigs, Ala., on March 18, 1922, and grew up in Birmingham. He took the name of his stepfather, William N. Shuttlesworth. Rev. Shuttlesworth drove a truck and was a cement worker in his youth and was arrested in the early 1940s for operating an illegal moonshine still.

He studied for the ministry at Selma University and received a bachelor’s degree in English from Alabama State University in 1951. He preached at rural Baptist churches near Selma before becoming pastor of Birmingham’s Bethel Baptist Church in 1953.

So he just transitioned from being a moonshiner to being a Baptist preacher, a “firebrand whose preaching style derived from the unvarnished churches of the rural South,” according to this report.

Moonshiner. Baptist preacher.

Does anyone else out there suspect that some interesting changes, something that might even be called a born-again experience, a conversion or at the very least a great awakening, took place in between those two paragraphs? And what about this man’s voice? Might there have been — in all of those decades of leading people through his pulpit gifts — at least one or two passages from sermons that captured THIS MAN’S GIFT?

I know that, in the black church, pastors play a role that moves beyond the pulpit and out into the public square. I know the history of that. I’ve interviewed scores of scholars who have studied the Rev. Martin Luther King — senior and junior — and the other great leaders of that era. Here is the question that I heard them ask over and over. It’s the question I have heard African-American pastors ask over, as well.

The question: “Why do journalists assume that all of these preachers are really nothing more than politicians? Why doesn’t anyone ever listen to what they are actually saying about the Gospel?”

In other words, where is Shuttlesworth, the preacher, in this obituary? We only needed a few paragraphs, in addition to the vital, necessary details of his courageous career in the public square.

Just asking.

Print Friendly

About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Dave

    Why do journalists assume that all of these preachers are really nothing more than politicians?

    Perhaps because their politics is what brings them to journalists’ attention.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    And journalists are just supposed to settle for that? To assume that the vast majority of a man’s life and work is actually not connected to, well, the events of his life?

    What a nasty thing to say about journalists (even if it’s true of many).

  • Dave

    Terry, mine was an “is” statement, not an “ought” statement. You know the difference.

  • sari

    Anyone notice parallels between him and Obama in their choice of stories?

    “But when the first bomb went off, it took all fear from my mind. I knew God was with me like he was with Daniel in the lions’ den. The black people of Birmingham knew that God had saved me to lead the fight.”

    Obama quoted another African-American leader’s rendition of this story and then worked that into his own speech.

    This was the point I tried to make on the Obama thread. The media comment on religious commentary by white fundamentalists (maybe the wrong word; if so, I apologize), because they share context and understand the subtext from their own experiences. I think that many journalists are less familiar with the role of religion in the African-American community.

    The story of Daniel and his associates clearly has a specific meaning to black churchgoers (or, even non-churchgoers), but no one on the outside seems to know what to make of it. Further, it does not mention Jesus per se, though it ties into Christian scripture, so it is far less threatening to non-Christians and therefore less newsworthy.

  • R Novotny

    I believe that a political agenda sells better than nurturing the souls of men.This is a man who deserver more than a mentenion in the written and spoken history of the civil rights struggle.Overshadowed in death(Steve Jobs)as in life,his contributions to humanity compel acknowledgement.

  • MJBubba

    “Why do journalists assume that all of these preachers are really nothing more than politicians? Why doesn’t anyone ever listen to what they are actually saying about the Gospel?”

    Professor Mattingly, thanks for highlighting these obituaries. To answer the questions: The religion of the journalists is politics; they do not think of the Gospel as good news, but only as a political label.

  • JWB

    Were the churches in which he ended up serving as pastor the sort of Baptists who are formally committed to teetotalism? That would heighten the contrast between the moonshiner and the preacher. If not, I’m not even sure what the contrast is supposed to be. He obviously didn’t believe during his ministry that obedience to the law-as-such was required by Christianity when the particular laws were unworthy of respect, and plenty of people in the rural South didn’t think the laws against moonshining (which were basically about getting licenses and paying taxes) were worthy of respect.

  • Steve

    “Why do journalists assume that all of these preachers are really nothing more than politicians? Why doesn’t anyone ever listen to what they are actually saying about the Gospel?”

    I also do not recall the journalistic fear and hue and cry about separation of church and state when black preachers are involved. Apparently only white clerics can do that…


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X